Giving birth in a pool of water is far better for mother and baby than traditional deliveries on a hospital bed, research shows today.

Giving birth in a pool of water is far better for mother and baby than traditional deliveries on a hospital bed, research shows today.

Women who spent at least part of their labour in water had less pain, and were less likely to need an epidural and require induction to speed up their contractions than those cared for in the conventional way, doctors at the University of Southampton said.

The study of 99 women is the first to demonstrate that immersion in water can help labour progress without medical intervention or the prescription of drugs for pain relief. Half of the 49 women who used the birthing pool had an epidural, compared with two-thirds of the 50 women who had standard care. Overall, women who used the pool felt more satisfied with the way the birth had gone.

The findings, published online by the British Medical Journal, were welcomed by the National Childbirth Trust, which has campaigned for the provision of birthing pools in NHS trusts for women who want them. Ministers have called for greater choice in childbirth but the popularity of water births, which was at its height in the early 1990s, has declined as hospitals have turned away from providing the service. More than 90 per cent of maternity units have birthing pools or baths suitable for water births, but only 2 per cent of women use them.

Mary Newburn, the head of policy at the National Childbirth Trust, said: "For over a decade, women have been telling us that being able to use a birth pool during labour helps them to cope with contractions and feel safe and secure. It gives them their own space in which they can move around easily and find the most comfortable position. This research now confirms that being immersed in warm water eases labour pain. This reduces the need for drugs, which ... can make the baby more sleepy and breastfeeding more difficult."

Christine McNeill, 35, who has given birth with and without a birthing pool, said her water birth was better. Her son Jamie, six, was born after a difficult labour in hospital, while her daughter Eva, two, was delivered in a pool set up in the living room of their home in north London. She said: "As soon as I got into the pool, the effect was dramatic. My whole body was contracting but, rather than experiencing intense pain, I just felt the power of the contractions."

Midwives experienced in water births say there seems to be an affinity between human beings and water that makes the process of labouring and giving birth in water feel natural. One midwife said: "Once you have been with a woman labouring in water, the evidence is overwhelming, because it helps so much." Doctors have been more sceptical, recognising the relaxing properties of a warm bath, but highlighting safety aspects. They have complained that, if the pools are too deep, there is a practical question of how the midwife gets access to the mother and baby, as well as the need to keep everything sterile.

Ms Newburn echoed the view of maternity pressure groups, who have expressed astonishment that obstetric units are unwilling to encourage a form of pain relief which has no side effects. She said: "Some units have no pool or no midwives trained and confident to support women using water. Given the cost - to the woman and the health service - of birth interventions that can be avoided when water is used, it makes sense for every unit to offer this option."